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How a socialist won the Buffalo mayoral primary

India Walton’s mayoral primary victory is historic. Can her campaign provide a blueprint for progressive success?

India Walton Courtesy of India Walton’s campaign

When India Walton — the socialist challenger to a four-term incumbent mayor with deep ties to New York’s Democratic Party — won the Democratic primary for Buffalo’s mayoral race, the result was a surprise to nearly everyone but her campaign team.

Walton, a 38-year-old nurse and union and community organizer, had been discounted by many, including defeated incumbent Byron Brown, given Brown’s incumbent advantage and party ties. But Walton won last Tuesday, positioning herself as the likely mayor-elect in a deep-blue city.

If she wins in November — Brown is already marshaling a write-in campaign against her — then Walton will become Buffalo’s first woman mayor, the first successful left-wing challenger to an incumbent in the history of the Buffalo mayorship, and America’s first socialist mayor of a major city since Milwaukee’s Frank Zeidler left office in 1961.

In the wake of her victory, progressives are hoping for a much shorter gap between Walton’s rise and the swearing-in of the next socialist city leader.

“This victory is ours,” Walton said in a speech on election night. “It is the first of many. If you are in an elected office right now, you are being put on notice. We are coming.”

But success in this endeavor will be difficult, as evidenced by a mixed record for progressive challengers this year.

Walton had a major assist from New York’s Working Families Party, a progressive organization that supports both Democrats and runs primary challengers. And a number of other left-leaning candidates the party supported won or are winning the New York City public advocate and city comptroller races; City Council seats in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens; and the mayoral race in Rochester, where challenger Malik Evans beat incumbent Lovely Warren by running to her left.

But the biggest prize for New York state’s left — the New York City mayoral race — appears to be in the hands of the more centrist candidate Eric Adams rather than progressive Maya Wiley. And nationally, socialist candidate Lee Carter recently lost to the establishment-backed candidate in the Virginia gubernatorial primary while progressive Karen Carter Peterson was bested by the more moderate candidate in a Louisiana special House election.

Amid these results, debate has emerged among Democrats about what type of candidates are best, with people like Adams saying Democrats need to emulate him to win, strategists like James Carville saying Democrats need to be less woke, and progressives like Walton arguing their victories suggest the opposite.

Wins like Walton’s help lend some credence to progressives’ argument — but also raise the question of whether such success can be a blueprint for progressive insurgent organizing or if each is a one-off propelled by the specific circumstances of the race.

There’s compelling evidence to support both conclusions, but the organizational capacity and movement-centered policies that Walton embraced give credence to the progressive argument. They believe her win shows that when passionate candidates meet strong organizers, running to the left creates opportunities.

How India Walton won

While Buffalo is a unique city with its own set of issues and voters, several organizers and strategists Vox spoke with believed that Walton’s win is replicable, arguing that it hinged largely on her organization and visibility.

India Walton first launched her campaign with a staff of mostly working mothers who would facilitate team calls during their lunch breaks or in the evenings after work. She was well-known in Buffalo’s activist scene through her experience as a union representative for health care workers and as a community organizer with Open Buffalo, an anti-poverty and activist training group, and the executive director of the affordable housing-focused Fruit Belt Community Land Trust.

After participating in protests last summer over the murder of George Floyd and police violence perpetrated by the Buffalo Police Department, Walton wanted to convert the movement energy into electoral results.

“People really related to India, her story, and how she leveraged her lived experience,” Sochie Nnaemeka, the director of New York’s Working Families Party, said. “The team built itself around India. Because of her leadership, people already followed her. People already trusted her.”

Walton’s campaign touched on a lot of hot-button issues for Democrats, but she spoke about her vision in a way that was grounded in Buffalo’s reality, supporters said. Instead of litigating the popularity and definition of the phrase “defund the police,” Walton emphasized the ideas behind the phrase, advocating for a non-law enforcement response to mental health crises and discussing what budget opportunities would be available by diverting police funding.

As a longtime organizer over affordable housing, Walton’s pledge to implement the Tenants’ Bill of Rights and People Action’s Homes Guarantee, which promises permanent affordable housing for everyone through building, investment, and decommodification.

That these policies were coming from Walton — someone who was known in the community and had the trust of many voters following years of union organizing and activism — helped make them extremely accessible, according to Amanda Litman, the founder of progressive campaign organization Run for Something and an endorser of Walton.

She spoke about policy in a way that was specific to her experiences as a native of the low-income, predominantly Black East Buffalo, as a nurse, and as a working mother who had her first child as a teenager. Even her messaging around socialism — a word often used as a point of attack — was clearly stated, with Walton often saying that the city already engages in socialism through tax breaks and public subsidies for corporations.

This isn’t rocket science,” Litman said. “It’s not like India message tested or was polling her framing on the issues. She was talking about the problems that people were facing in a way that they could connect with, ‘cause she was one of them.”

Walton drew endorsements from a number of key Democratic constituencies — the Buffalo Teachers Federation, both the local and national Democratic Socialists of America, and the Elect Black Women political action committee.

But the March buy-in of the New York Working Families Party — which had endorsed Brown in previous elections — made a critical difference, marrying their campaign organizing experience with Walton’s vision and community connections.

Charlie Blaettler, NYWFP’s elections director, said the Buffalo mayoral race was ripe for investment. There was an incumbent who had rejected calls for significant change after a turbulent summer and a challenger who had natural organizing talent and a clear ideological vision.

Blaettler helped Walton raise $140,000, when the campaign had started with $11,000. The NYWFP trained volunteers in some of the basics — how to pull voter files, build the right lists, target voters, and do peer-to-peer texting as well as more expensive tactics, such as recording a robocall with Walton, producing a direct mail ad by designers who worked on Rep. Mondaire Jones’ (D-NY) successful campaign, and even creating a television commercial.

“This race turned out being a really good example of what the Working Families Party is about and how we want to operate,” Blaettler said. “It’s experts in campaigns who know how to run professional political operations and organizers on the ground who are deeply embedded in their communities, who are able to mobilize their friends, families, and neighbors around a cause.”

Having a candidate with a strong community presence, bold ideas, and the backing of electoral experts is part of Walton’s recipe for success that many progressives argue is transferable to other races. But there was one important part of her race that was a little more singular: As Walton and the NYWFP were campaigning, building a fresh political organizing class in Buffalo, Brown ignored the campaign.

In fact, it was only in the final week, when Brown, bolstered by $120,000 in spending from developers, lobbyists, and businesspeople, put out ads. He refused to debate Walton, ignoring the fact that he had a challenger altogether. The 21,407-person turnout this year represented just three-quarters of Brown’s 2017 primary reelection, where turnout was also abysmally low.

Walton had 150 poll watchers, including Bishop, who said many voters remarked on Brown’s campaign strategy.

“They were indignant about the fact that after 15 years [in office], their mayor didn’t even feel like he had to show up and talk to voters,” Bishop said.

Not every progressive candidate will have this advantage. But progressive organizers argue that other left-leaning candidates can give themselves the other advantages Walton enjoyed by leveraging their community roots and through careful organizing.

“The establishment can’t take us for granted,” said Joseph Geevarghese, the executive director of Our Revolution — a progressive political action group made up of former Sanders 2016 staffers. “A serious candidate, with serious organization — they can’t ignore it.”

Progressives believe Walton’s win is just the beginning

Brooke Adams, the movement politics director for progressive political advocacy group People’s Action, said Walton’s win came on the strength of a decade of organizing by affordable housing activists in Buffalo, to whom Walton had strong ties. Her community organizing allowed her message to come across as organic and Buffalo-oriented.

“This race was really a perfect example of community organizing and movement politics at its best,” she said. “It’s a decade-plus of base-building meets democratic control of the economy meets a movement champion who’s really going to run on issues that matter locally.”

And many progressive strategists say Walton’s win is a symbol of how far the progressive movement — one that’s still relatively young given the founding of many groups occurred after the 2016 Democratic primary — has come.

Despite the progressive losses in New York City and elsewhere, Geevarghese said Walton’s victory is a major step forward for the progressive movement, given that it simultaneously expanded the number of progressive elected officials in the US. It gave the socialist movement a new face and spokesperson, may inspire future candidates, and expanded the pool of experienced progressive volunteers and campaign officials.

Having skilled progressive campaign workers is of particular importance. According to Geevarghese, the difference between the Buffalo mayoral race and that of a candidate like Lee Carter, a socialist who ran for governor in Virginia and performed abysmally, is the organizational capability that groups who have seen their power increase since Sanders’ failed presidential campaign can bring.

“Lee Carter was rhetorically powerful, but he had no organization at all,” Geevarghese said. “Our job in the progressive movement is to really marry both the messaging and the organization. And that should strike fear in the heart of the establishment.”

The progressive movement has also struggled to shake the narrative, true or not, that it is led by academics and graduate workers, and it is mostly popular among a highly educated, upper-middle-class white constituency — a theory pushed by New York mayoral candidate Eric Adams and that somewhat bore out in an analysis of his progressive rival Maya Wiley’s voters.

As a working-class Black woman, Walton disrupted that narrative and advocated for socialism as a result of organizing and personal experience rather than from an academic or theoretical perspective. And progressives believe that identifying other, similarly situated candidates would be a wise strategy.

“Regular folks are more likely to identify with a person from a similar circumstance than someone who went to a fancy Ivy League school,” Geevarghese said.

University of Buffalo political science professor Jacob Neiheisel was more reluctant to assign broader takeaways from Walton’s race given that had a lot of unique circumstances — including low turnout and an incumbent who did not campaign — though he did credit the genuine grassroots organizing Walton’s campaign did as a replicable strategy.

“There’s no magic formula that [Walton] suddenly tapped into,” Neiheisel said. “It’s politics as usual. You get people to the polls and have people more excited about you than the other person.”

And as recent races have shown, it is relatively easy to point to organized progressives with high name recognition that were unsuccessful. In New York, for example, the ability of progressives to challenge the establishment was notably thwarted in 2018, when actress and activist Cynthia Nixon got soundly defeated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the New York Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Litman, the Run for Something founder, said it is important to take into account that one of the biggest obstacles for progressive challengers is that most are first-time candidates, who, statistically, have low odds. As the bench develops, she believes Gracie Mansion or even the State Executive Mansion — and other states’ equivalents — could be in reach soon.

“In two, four, six years, it’s going to be an incredible field of at that point more experienced left-wing candidates,” she said. “We’re just at the beginning.”

Blaettler acknowledged the specific factors that were in place in Buffalo. But he still believes progressive candidates can successfully extrapolate strategies from the Walton campaign.

“[Brown] was probably more vulnerable than people realized or whatever, but this is not some unique set of circumstances that can never be replicated,” Blaettler said. “There’s an India Walton in every city, and we just need to support them and find them and invest in them.”